On March 3, 2016, a man named Kulbhushan Jhadev was arrested by Pakistan’s security forces when he was allegedly entering the country’s Balochistan province from Iran. On March 30, 2016, ISPR released a video in which Jhadev admitted that he had been involved in fomenting unrest and terrorism in Balochistan and Karachi.
According to his video confession, he was an officer in the Indian Navy and was employed by RAW, India’s spy agency.
On April 10 this year, a field military court in Pakistan sentenced Jhadev to death for espionage and sabotage. Though this case has received widespread media coverage, Jhadev is actually the 14th Indian spy arrested and sentenced by Pakistan in the last 46 years.
Many of these cases are now well-known. The most intriguing one, however, was the case of two Indians who [albeit briefly] were actually hailed as heroes by some sections in Pakistan!
Kulbushan Jhadev is not the first to be caught in a secretive game of chess
In January 1971, two young men from Kashmir hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar and ordered the pilot to land it at the Lahore Airport in Pakistan. The hijackers were Hashim Qureshi and his relative, Ashraf Qureshi. Both claimed to belong to the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).
The plane was allowed to land in Lahore. Just as the newspapers were reporting the incident, the two hijackers began being hailed as heroes by a large section of Pakistanis. One reason for this was because Z.A. Bhutto, the main opposition leader at the time, arrived on a flight which landed in Lahore the same day as the the hijacked plane.
Veteran journalist and columnist, the late Khalid Hassan, wrote in April 2003 [in The Friday Times] that when Bhutto was greeted by a boisterous crowd of supporters at the main gate of the Lahore Airport, his supporters insisted that he meet the hijackers and hail their act. Hassan (who was travelling with Bhutto at the time) added that Bhutto was carried on the shoulders of some of his supporters towards the hijacked plane. He shook their hands, exchanged a few pleasantries but then beat a hasty retreat.
At the time Pakistan was under a martial law regime headed by General Yahya Khan. The country’s eastern wing, East Pakistan, was on the brink of a civil war. Hassan wrote that Bhutto was not sure what the stand of the Pakistani government was in regard to the hijacking. He complained that he was ‘forced to meet the hijackers by some of his overly enthusiastic supporters.’
After negotiations, the Pakistan authorities convinced the hijackers to release the passengers of the plane who were put on another plane leaving for Delhi. The hijacked aircraft was then blown up. Newspapers reported that the empty plane was rigged with dynamite by the hijackers. But Hassan, in another article, quoted a former Pakistan intelligence officer, Aftab Ahmad, saying that it was he who gave the order to set fire to the plane. The task was performed by the hijackers who were provided kerosene oil.
"In January 1971, two young men from Kashmir hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar and ordered the pilot to land it at the Lahore Airport in Pakistan. The hijackers were Hashim Qureshi and his relative, Ashraf Qureshi. Both claimed to belong to the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The plane was allowed to land in Lahore. Just as the newspapers were reporting the incident, the two hijackers began being hailed as heroes by a large section of Pakistanis.
Why would the officer do that? Hassan did not ask. Hassan only informed us that even though, right at the start of the hijacking, the two Qureshis were being hailed as freedom fighters by some quarters in Pakistan, the Yahya government had remained largely silent. The two hijackers were taken into custody and were met by an important JKLF leader who was based in Pakistan.
A. H. Talib wrote a detailed account of the hijacking in 2014 for the Greater Kashmir webzine. Talib wrote that eventually not only were the two hijackers thrown in jail, the JKLF leader too was arrested. This suggests that the Yahya regime was suspicious about the hijackers’ motives.
With the eruption of the December 1971 civil war in East Pakistan and then the assumption of power by Bhutto’s PPP, the hijacking story vanished from the newspapers, even though in India it had been flaunted as ‘proof of Pakistan’s direct involvement in Kashmir.’
Talib wrote that the JKLF leader and one of the hijackers, Ashraf Qureshi, were released by the in-coming Bhutto regime, whereas the second hijacker, Hashim Qureshi, was released nine years later in 1980 during the Gen Zia dictatorship. Hashim left for Holland, but Ashraf stayed behind. He became an academician after graduating from Punjab University. He passed away in Muzzafarabad in 2012.
In a February 14, 2001 interview, Hashim Qureshi [who returned to India from Holland in 2001] said that during their trial [in 1973] the Pakistan government had accused Ashraf and him of working for RAW. In the same interview Hashim stated that Ashraf and he were trapped into committing the hijacking by Pakistani agencies.
However, Hashim’s verdict might perhaps have been different had he not returned to India. Thirteen years after Hashim claimed that Pakistan was behind the hijacking, a former senior sleuth of RAW, R.K. Yadev, wrote the following in his 2014 book, Mission R&AW: “RAW persuaded Hashim Qureshi to work for them. After the plan was given final shape, Hashim Qureshi along with another operative Ashraf Qureshi was allowed to hijack an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore. RAW allowed him to carry a grenade and a toy pistol inside the plane. Pakistani authorities at Lahore airport allowed the plane to land when they were informed that it had been hijacked by Kashmiri activists. All India Radio soon broadcast this hijacking and the whole world was informed that Pakistan was behind it. The incident overtly gave India the right opportunity to cancel the flights of Pakistan over its territory, which hampered the plans of Yahya Khan to send troops by air to East Pakistan.”
Yahya was right to suspect the two men. Khalid Hassan in his piece concluded that the hijackers became victims of a larger game being played by India and Pakistan. A game the young hijackers did not fully understand. That’s why Ashraf was able to live in Pakistan, and Hashim returned to India.
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017